Attorney of the Month, Kendall Coffey

By Rebecca Larsen

If you want to know more about Kendall Coffey’s persuasive powers as a trial lawyer, turn on YouTube and watch a video from the Elian Gonzalez controversy of April 2000. There’s Coffey passionately telling the press about how he was negotiating with the U.S. Justice Department about Elian’s future at the very moment that the U.S. Attorney General had sent in soldiers at gunpoint to take the little boy away from his family and ship him back to Cuba.

The average lawyer might consider himself privileged to play a central role in just one high-profile case like this once during his career. But Kendall Coffey has found himself in the center of a number of cases – all of them making waves in the political history of the state and the nation.

Each case was uniquely tied to Florida and each somehow led to the next one for Coffey. So it’s no wonder that Coffey has become a frequent commentator on high-profile legal cases on national television throughout the years. Along the way, Coffey also held a much-coveted position as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 1993 to 1996.

Attorney Alan Dershowitz summed it all up recently when he wrote about Coffey: “Coffey has done it all, and from every vantage point — prosecutor, defense attorney, talking head, teacher and writer. His cases are legendary and his success rate is the envy of the bar.”

His main involvement today, of course, is his Miami law firm, Coffey Burlington, primarily dedicated to complex commercial litigation at the state, federal and appellate level. The firm also takes on some white collar clients facing allegations of fraud or corruption and has recently added two prominent family law attorneys to its practice.

Many in Miami first got to know Kendall Coffey when he led a vote challenge by Joe Carollo in the 1998 Miami mayoral election. Xavier Suarez had been named the winner on Election Day in late 1997. But Carollo, with Coffey’s help, convinced a judge that absentee ballot fraud was so rampant that all these ballots needed to be thrown out. An appeals court subsequently ruled that year that no new election should be held, and Carollo should be declared the winner for the rest of the term.

“That was one of the few challenges to a major election that has ultimately succeeded in court and may be the last time that a fraud challenge has reversed an election result for the Southern District of Florida,” Coffey said.

It was because of the high profile success in that case and Coffey’s service as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida that he was contacted by Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez, the little boy rescued at sea after his mother died trying to escape from Cuba, to seek Coffey’s assistance.

Coffey represented the family in its efforts to have a voice in Elian’s future instead of allowing him to be immediately sent back to Cuba to live with his father.

“The family always thought that an independent guardian should be appointed; they wanted what was best for Elian and felt that the sacrifice of the mother’s life deserved respect and validation,” Coffey said. Since Coffey had served under President Clinton’s administration, he observes that it was “extraordinary to oppose the people I’d once worked for, and for whom I had considerable respect, but I considered the paramilitary raid on the unarmed, unexpecting house to be an act of extreme bad faith.”

Looking back, Coffey notes that the backlash against the handling of the Elian Gonzalez case probably played a role in the subsequent loss of Al Gore in Florida in November of that same year. “There were thousands of Cuban Democrats that wouldn’t vote for Gore after that,” he said. “There was a lot of anger in the Cuban community.”

But when Gore challenged the results and went to court seeking a recount, Coffey was part of the Democratic legal team challenging George Bush’s victory by 527 votes in Florida. “I was honored to be one of the first lawyers involved; beginning the day after the election,” he said.

The eventual outcome of the case before the U.S. Supreme Court was a heavy blow. “It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I used to think about it continuously,” Coffey said. “But the recount drama was also one of the most extraordinary moments in legal history. I have to say as well that the attorneys on both sides performed superbly and in representing their clients also represented the finest traditions of our profession.”

Coffey was involved in another memorable election case in 2006 involving Christine Jennings, a Democratic candidate for Congress in District 13 in Sarasota. Jennings contended that she “lost” only because 18,000 congressional ballots cast on paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines in her home county turned up blank. Coffey was part of the legal team that joined Jennings in contesting the election. But while losing the battle, the war for a new election system was won.

“Because of the failure of those computers, Florida will now only use electronic voting systems that produce a verifiable paper trail,” he said. “It was very disappointing because she had been a tremendous candidate. But an important good was accomplished.”

Over the years, Coffey’s skills as “an eloquent presenter of the facts” and “master of the law,” as Dershowitz calls him, have led him to become a legal commentator for international television networks: CNN, Telemundo, Univision, the Canadian Broadcasting Co., CNBC, Fox, MSNBC, NBC and many others. Most recently, he has been a commentator on “The Today Show” regarding the Casey Anthony case.

He has also written a number of law review articles for publications such as the Yale Law and Policy Review as well as opinion pieces on the law for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Miami Herald, National Law Journal, Florida Sun- Sentinel and more.

In 2010, Coffey put all of his knowledge about talking about the law together in a book, “Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion.” The book told the story of some of his most famous clients, but also analyzed media management successes and blunders in a number of high-profile legal cases, involving personalities like Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryan, Scooter Libby and Rod Blagojevich. The purpose of the book was to explain how “spin” so prevalent in marketing and political campaigns also shapes public opinion about courtroom battles. For example, he notes that Martha Stewart lost her legal battle and went to jail, but managed to maintain public sympathy and support that helped save her career.

In commenting on Coffey’s abilities, Lee Stapleton, a longtime friend who was an assistant to Coffey when he was a U.S. attorney, said, “He has impeccable judgment legally, strategically and atmospherically. He understands all facets of a case.” Stapleton is a partner with Baker McKenzie in Miami.

Principally concentrating in business cases, investigations and government litigation, Coffey does some work in the commercial foreclosure area. He represents lenders, but does some pro bono work for homeowners facing loss of their homes. In fact, his work in the area led to another book, “Foreclosures in Florida” published by Lexis Nexis.

So far homeowner relief programs have not really worked, he said. “None of them have been effective because they don’t go far enough. Homeowner relief needs to be both aggressive and realistic; incentivizing lenders to modify mortgages so that homeowners can meet their payments, which frequently requires a principal reduction. That might sound like a government bailout but the tangible value of keeping people in their homes is immense and the intangible benefits are even greater.”

Along with a reputation as one of Florida’s great courtroom lawyers, Kendall Coffey represents a new breed of attorney: a hybrid lawyer/advocate blending the traditional skills of an attorney with those of a savvy news analyst, an informed policy commentator and versatile strategist for business clients. This allows him to take his clients’ cases into all the venues where important matters are decided and appeal to all the “juries” – formally in the courtroom and informally in the streets, the media and wherever opinions are formed.

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